Mario Seiglie joins Victor Kubik over Skype to discuss his experience fleeing Cuba as a child, as well as the recent death of Fidel Castro and how Cuba will be affected. (Original broadcast date: November 30, 2016)
[Victor Kubik] This is Victor Kubik, president of the United Church of God. Joining us by Skype today is Mario Seiglie, pastor of the United Church of God in Garden Grove, California. Mario is of Cuban decent. He was born in Cuba and came to this country in 1960. He has quite a story to tell and we’re very anxious to hear from him today. Welcome, Mario.
[Mario Seiglie] Thank you. It’s very nice to be with you.
[Victor] Well, we’re very, very happy to have you here. Mario, tell us about how you left Cuba, your parents in 1960, what led to that.
[Mario] Yes. I was born in 1953 in Havana, Cuba of a prosperous family. My father was a medical doctor. We were what you’d consider high society. We lived in a very nice neighborhood in Havana. My dad had graduated from the University of Havana Medical School. He had his own clinic there and it was a very idyllic life until the age of six when, in 1959, Fidel Castro took over. And everybody was very excited about Fidel at first. There’d been a rule by a pretty corrupt dictator, Fulgencio Batista, for over 10 years and everybody was very tired of him, and so there was a lot of excitement in the air when Fidel came in in 1959.
But my father was not happy at all because he and Fidel knew each other from university days. And while my father was going to medical school, Fidel was getting his law degree in the same university. And this very freakish incident happened that my father met the student body president of the University of Havana and this student body president told him that Fidel was pressuring him because he hadn’t completed his classes and yet, he wanted to get the law degree one way or the other. And so when my father said, “What did you do?” He said, “I told him I couldn’t make any exception.” He was part of the administrative branch of the university. And so he said that, “You have to finish your course before you get your law degree,” and Fidel threatened him.
And so two weeks later coming out of a movie theater, this man was assassinated by Castro’s henchman. And Castro then fled to the university property and hid out that night in the very building where my father was staying. Some of the students there told my father that Fidel was hiding out, but they didn’t know exactly why. At that time, of course, radio was very limited. So they all said, “Well, we don’t want the police here. Who knows what kind of trivial thing he’s hiding out for.” And then the next morning, when they found out about the assassination, Fidel had already fled. And so Fidel eventually made his way to Mexico and then in 1959, after building up his own revolt, he triumphed.
So my father knew from university days that Fidel Castro was a treacherous man. He was willing to kill to get his way and so…we stayed in Cuba for almost a year. Things got really bad when Fidel eventually declared that he wasn’t going to establish a democracy but a communist regime. And so my father, looking into the future, realized he had to go into the resistance movement and that we were going to be in danger. So he sent my mother, sister, and I on a flight to Miami.
Now, the flight at that time were called “Freedom Flights” to Miami, but Fidel was about ready to suspend them. And little that we know that on that very day when Fidel was going to suspend them, we left, my mother, sister and I, grandparents, many other family, relatives. And the next day, they had suspended them. So that’s the way we arrived in Miami with my father then starting a resistance movement. He was a freedom fighter, and that we didn’t know whether we would ever see him again.
[Victor] When did your father finally come?
[Mario] A year and a half later. He was captured after the Bay of Pigs invasion. He was coordinating along with other of the leaders of that invasion, but he was stationed in Havana. They had gotten all the instructions about the bombing that would take place and then in the key places in the city, and then they would take over. And then from the Bahía Cochinos, the group there of about 2,000, they would meet with them in Havana.
But that, of course, never happened because John F. Kennedy got cold feet and he suspended the bombardment. And so these people in the Bay of Pigs, they never had a real chance. My father was captured as well. He was able to escape and make his way into the Venezuelan Embassy. And they then smuggled them out of Cuba to Venezuela, and then he took a flight to Miami, and we reunited in 1962.
[Victor] Well, that’s an amazing story, Mario. I know that I have heard you tell that story before but it’s so interesting especially right now with the changes that may be taking place in Cuba. Do you believe that with the death of Fidel Castro that there’s going to be anything meaningful that will be different?
[Mario] Of course, nobody knows for sure. They’ve almost been there for 60 years. It’s a very entrenched system. Fidel adopted Stalin’s and Lenin’s strategy of planting one family per every block of people living there. And so they have a spy system, and these people are supported by the government. They have to be communists. And so they have one basic rule which is to watch their block for any type of dissension, any outburst, anything that begins to be like a protest. Their rule is that they inform so that no two city blocks can unite in a type of protest or uprising. And that’s the way they nip it in the bud.
[Victor] And that same type of thing is going to continue, you think?
[Mario] Yes, until eventually people will be so fed up that there will be a massive revolt. Fidel was ruthless, unscrupulous. And so Raul managed to survive under his brother’s shadow for so long because he was basically a lackey. He’s not that same type of absolute dictator than Fidel.
[Victor] Can you tell us a little bit about Christians, about people who are interested in the Church of God in Cuba?
[Mario] We know there are because we do get correspondence once in a while. There are probably less than 100 magazines that go there because of their censorship. They will open up all the packages and if it’s a Christian magazine, many times, it doesn’t go through. But we do have some Sabbath keepers there that were on a sporadic contact because as soon as they start communicating too much, the government comes in and censors them and cuts off that communication.
We actually had a marine biologist who was very interested and he was keeping the Sabbath. He wanted to be a part of United. We would communicate through Skype. And then all of a sudden, he was using the computers of his laboratory but he got caught, and we never heard from him since.
[Victor] I might also mention that Mario is not only a pastor of the church in Garden Grove, California, but he is regional pastor over our Spanish-speaking areas in the world. And there are congregations in Guatemala, Mexico, Columbia, other places in South America, and Mario travels regularly to these areas along with others, with the churches and the brethren that we have there. Mario, anything else you can say?
[Mario] I’ll just say through life, many times, you have to go through sufferings, but some of those sufferings prepare you for more important things. And so here I was, at seven years old, being packed off to a strange land, strange language, just had the clothes on my back. But we just finished Thanksgiving and there’s so much to give thanks about this wonderful country that took us in. And now, we have family that is safe. We did gain our freedom being here in the United States.
I feel so badly for my compatriots that are still in a type of a gilded cage where they’re fed, but you’re not allowed to spread your wings and do what you want to do. And besides that, at 17, 10 years later, God called me to His wonderful truths, and I always consider if I had not made the trip over to the United States and if I had not learned that you can lose everything from one day to the other, from one day to the next. And to me, all the frills of society, all the tinsel just fell away and I was ready for something deeper and more spiritually satisfying.
And so I had a place there that had been scraped away, my heart and in my mind, through suffering, through being humiliated in this way of starting anew, it gave me a fresh start to look at things. And so God’s truths were far more open to me than otherwise. And after that, learning from my father of what it is to be honest. He died as a town doctor having taught in the University of Havana medicine and he never was materialistic in that way.
He cared for the people. He took his time. Sometimes, the people there in Murphy, North Carolina would pay us with corn, and green beans, and the vegetables that they grew because they didn’t have anything else. My father never complained. We enjoyed that food. That was awfully fresh and delicious. But he died virtually with no material possessions except the house that we lived in. And yet, he was a very honest man and he taught me, “You have to put your reputation first.” And because of that honesty, he decided not to just flee with everyone else to the U.S., but stay and try to regain that freedom for the land. When evil stares at you, many people will melt away, but he stood firm, and that has helped me through my life to stand firm for God’s truths and His way of life.
[Victor] Thank you very, very much, Mario. This has been a very inspiring and wonderful report especially, historically, right now with what’s happening in Cuba, and to hear about your background and your observations from the time that you had left, and also through your ministry, not only in the United States but also in the Spanish-speaking parts of the world.
[Mario] Thank you.
[Victor] Thanks for joining us on Inside United and come back soon for more.
[Announcer] This is a production of the United Church of God. For more, visit ucg.org.